Monday, May 11, 2009

That's What This Starship is All About. That's Why We're Aboard Her.

I saw Star Trek over the weekend and enjoyed it, though not unreservedly. I give it a "B," maybe a 7 out of 10. I thought it was good. Not great, but far from the abomination it could've been.

I never objected to the idea of a "reboot" in theory, and thought the execution went about as well as it could have. The casting is great. Pine is a fine young Kirk, Quinto does a much better Spock than I expected--eerily so in parts--and Karl Urban is staggeringly evocative of a young McCoy. Every character gets a chance to shine. A few reviews I've read make the point that all the characters are shown to be very smart and capable professionals, and I agree and think that's a very good thing. Study hard in school, kids, and someday you may get to explore the galaxy.

I just wish the script had gotten one more pass before they filmed it. In this post's comments, I detail several problems I had with plot and characterization. A few fall into the category of nitpicks from a grumpy old-school Trekkie, but I think others--probably too many others--constitute real flaws in the story. Some took me out of the movie while I watched it, others only occurred to me upon reflection. Too bad, because most of them could have been fixed in the script.

Don't look at the comments unless you've already seen the movie or don't care if you're spoiled! I go into detail!

The fact that I enjoyed the movie and consider it a successful reboot of my beloved Star Trek despite the problems I had with it is a tribute to its energy and promise. If they want to make two or ten new movies with this cast in this universe, I will eagerly return to watch them.


Brian Fies said...

As I said, any of these complaints individually may be a nitpick. Cumulatively, I think they indicate a script with problems.

My memory’s not entirely clear on this point, but I think we’re given two different explanations for Future Romulus’s destruction: Nero says it was split apart during mining operations (?), while Old Spock says it was destroyed by a supernova “that threatened the entire galaxy” (supernovas don’t work like that, but never mind). Neither explains why Nero holds Spock or the Federation responsible.

Let’s put it like this: You just watched your planet blow up and unexpectedly find yourself a century in the past. Do you a) zoom to that planet to warn everyone of the impending disaster and try to prevent it, or b) spend 25 years hunting down one guy who tried but failed to stop it? Say Nero succeeds in killing Spock and destroying every planet in the Federation—how does that help Romulus?

I think this is a big deal: if the villain’s motives aren’t clear or don’t make sense, the drama falls apart. Wrath of Khan worked because Khan wanted revenge on Kirk for understandable reasons. Star Trek Nemesis didn’t work because Shinzon decided to avenge his terrible childhood as a slave on a Romulan mining planet by . . . destroying Earth? Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much Nero’s “plan” as well.

By the way, what was Nero doing for those 25 years?

For a simple mining platform, Nero’s ship sure had some impressive firepower. Did you ever see those machines they built to dig the tunnel under the English Channel? Amazing pieces of equipment, but I still don’t think you could send one a century or two back in time and expect it to defeat the Royal Navy.

It was quite an incredible coincidence that Spock jettisoned Kirk (that’s how Spock gets rid of a troublemaker--not by confining him to quarters or throwing him in the brig, but literally shoving him out an airlock?) on the exact same planet near the exact same spot that Nero dropped off Old Spock. And I mean “incredible,” in that I don’t believe it.

Nero waits 25 years to capture Spock and then, first opportunity he gets, leaves him on a planet within walking distance of a Starfleet outpost? Nero said he wanted Spock to watch while he destroyed Vulcan. Seems to me Spock could’ve seen everything just fine tied to a chair on Nero’s bridge, and still been aboard to watch Nero destroy Earth as well. Bonus!

How close was that planet to Vulcan, anyway? Given how large Vulcan appeared in the sky, it must have been a very close moon.

Old Spock beams Kirk and Scotty back aboard the Enterprise but refuses to come along, echoing Doc Brown’s warning to Marty that meeting his past self could have disastrous consequences. He later admits that was baloney, he just thought it was important that young Kirk and Spock learn how to bond. So let me get this straight: Nero just destroyed Vulcan and is headed toward Earth, Old Spock has invaluable tactical information about Nero and his ship plus a century of scientific knowledge Starfleet doesn’t yet have, but he declines to volunteer that information just so young Kirk and Spock can be buddies? That’s pretty selfish. What if Nero had succeeded? Oh well, two planets gone and tens of billions killed, but at least I’ve got a friend.

Was there no one else on Vulcan or Earth able to defend their worlds besides the Enterprise? Spock eventually destroys the orbital drilling platform by flying to it and shooting through its cable. Anyone else could’ve done the same with a cropdusting biplane. Nero’s was not a difficult plan to thwart.

Old Spock knows how to travel through time. He has the equations in his head, and used them in The Voyage Home (the whale movie). You'd think he could go to Starfleet and say, “Hi, I’m from the future. Loan me a starship for a couple of days and I’ll go back in time to save Vulcan.” He doesn’t even consider it.

I’m no continuity cop, niggling over every detail. But the Star Trek universe is one in which time travel is not only possible but fairly common. This is the universe J.J. Abrams inherited, these are the toys in the sandbox he agreed to play in. And yet Spock, the one character who knows exactly how to change history, is sitting there at the end of the movie saying, “Too bad my entire species got wiped out. Oh well, nothing to be done about it now except move on.” Spock forgetting he can alter the past is like Superman forgetting he can fly.

(I had the same problem with the Harry Potter universe. Hermione can use a Time Turner to save Hagrid’s pet gryphon but no one thinks about doing the same for Cedric Diggory or Sirius Black? That’s the trouble with time travel: no one who can do it should ever lose.)

An admitted nitpick: in the scene at the end where Old and Young Spocks finally meet, Young Spock is clearly taller than Old Spock. I guess I can rationalize that Old Spock’s got a touch of Vulcan osteoporosis, but they’re supposed to be the same person; would it have killed them to have Leonard Nimoy stand on a little box for just that one scene?

Not a criticism, but a comment: It doesn’t look like Old Spock intends to keep a low profile after the events of the movie, nor is there any reason he should. He doesn’t need to worry about changing history, it’s already changed. I know they’ll never follow up, but I like to imagine Old Spock advancing Starfleet technology by a century, giving them the scoop on a couple hundred planets they haven’t discovered yet, and telling them where to find Khan before he comes out of suspended animation.

I don’t really mind the destruction of Vulcan. It felt like a kick in the gut, but it was supposed to—that’s the signal to the audience, even more than altering Kirk’s personal timeline, that nothing in this universe will be the same. It makes Spock even more of an alienated outsider, giving the character an air of tragedy that suits him. He’s one of the last of his kind, an “endangered species,” and I think that’ll work for him going forward.

Along the same lines, I don’t really object to the Spock-Uhura relationship. As Spock’s father Sarek points out, humans and Vulcans have fallen in love before. What I do object to, and felt completely out of character to me, was seeing Spock and Uhura clinging to each other in an elevator or on a transporter pad like teenagers doing their last slow dance at the prom. No Spock I know would ever engage in a public display of affection. That’s how he acts when he’s under the influence of alien spores; that’s how you know there’s something seriously wrong with him.

The Enterprise: I don’t object to its external design, though I think they could’ve hewn a bit closer to the classic Enterprise and still made it look modern enough. I’m okay with it. However, I seriously disliked almost everything about the interior. Very little of it felt real or well thought out, like it really belonged on a starship. The bridge is too big, with poor lines of sight and communication between the stations and the captain. Every time Spock or Uhura want to say something, they have to look around those stupid plastic panels. It wasn’t functional. For similar reasons, Engineering was awful. Too big and sprawling, all catwalks and conduits. There was nothing in it resembling an engine. It seriously looked to me like the filmmakers rented a brewery for the afternoon. Very disappointing, and it would’ve been so easy to spiff up the original Star Trek engineering deck into something very cool.

I admit this is another nitpick, but it bothered me that access to the new Enterprise’s bridge isn’t by elevator (turbolift) but by a corridor, and not a short corridor, either. That ain’t right. First, it’s a mismatch between the interior and exterior architecture: looking at the ship from the outside, there’s no room for corridors behind the bridge. Second, I think it subtly changes the dramatic atmosphere. An Enterprise bridge has always been an isolated nerve center, the brain whose nerves control the massive body below it. Now it’s just another room off a hallway--a spleen instead of a brain, if you will. All right, I already admitted that’s a nitpick.

The movie veered too close to Galaxy Quest territory for me on two occasions. First, when Kirk, Sulu, and Olson (?) skydive down to the drilling platform. We've never met Olson before and he's dressed in red. Guess which one’s not coming back. Second, when Scotty beams into what I can only surmise is the Enterprise’s sewage system and is being sucked toward an enormous whirling Cuisinart blade, all I could think of was the Galaxy Quest scene with the big metal chompers and Sigourney Weaver crying out, “What are these doing here? They serve no conceivable purpose!”

Finally, just a note that, as a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, it was very refreshing to see a filmmaker pass up a perfectly good opportunity to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge. Monsters Vs. Aliens, X-Men 3 . . . it seems you can hardly go to a theater without someone taking down my bridge. But J.J. Abrams aimed his deadly laser beam just a wee bit toward Alcatraz, missing the bridge entirely, for which I thank him.

Mark Heath said...

Great review, comments, suggestions, and nitpicks (which didn't feel like nitpicks to me.) If you ever get a chance to make the movie in your head, I'll be sure to buy a ticket.

The Bad Astronomy blog has a good review of the movie from a science perspective, elaborating on your comment about supernovas.

Anonymous said...

I could have listed every nitpick you did and yet . . . I love the film. I've seen it twice already and plan to see it again. I'm ready for Star Trek 2.

BTW . . . the post title is familiar, but I can't quite place what it is you're paraphrasing. Help, please.


Brian Fies said...

Holy moley. When I originally wrote that the Enterprise's engineering deck looked like a brewery, I was joking. However, I just came across an article that says that was in fact the case: those scenes were filmed in a Budweiser plant in Van Nuys, Calif. I guess I've seen enough wineries and brewpubs that the equipment registered in my subconscious, if not quite conscious, mind.

Next time, Mr. Abrams, build a set (and I'm sure there'll be a next time). An awesome set. Because the Big E deserves better.

Brian Fies said...

Mark, thanks. I'm a regular reader of the Bad Astronomer but haven't seen his review yet. I'll go check it out.

Otis, it's great to hear from you. Hope all is well. I think the fact that I enjoyed "Star Trek" despite my complaints is due to how much they got right, primarily the characters and their relationships. Kirk-Spock, Kirk-McCoy, and Spock-McCoy are rock solid. I noticed that each of those three key relationships had opportunities for conflict and humor built into them. They've constructed a good foundation there.

Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura are very appealing; I can only imagine how Takei, Koenig, and Nichols must wish they'd been given that much to do over the past 45 years. Pike's mentor/father-figure was great, and I liked Spock's relationships with both parents a lot. The late Mark Lenard made a terrific Sarek--in my opinion, he's the only actor besides Nimoy to ever get a Vulcan exactly right--but in the new movie Ben Cross brings a very subtle undercurrent of compassion to the character that I loved. It makes sense: why would Sarek marry a human if he had such contempt for them? The new Sarek seems to view Spock's human half as a source of strength instead of shame, which I found very reflective of Vulcan's "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" philosophy.

Characterization is important. Except for the Spock-Uhura PDA thing I noted, I think they got it pretty right, which is a big pro that outweighs a lot of cons. But plot is important too, and, as I said, I just wish they'd given the script one more editing pass to plug some mighty big holes. I thought Characterization deserved an "A" and Plot a generous "C minus," averaging to about a "B" grade in my estimation.

The post title is from one of Shatner-Kirk's classic speeches in the episode "Return to Tomorrow." (I just had to look that title up. There was a time I wouldn't have.) Maybe "Risk is our business!" will ring a bell.

Anonymous said...

Hi....excellent review and very pertinent points. The movie was great and all, but I still can't get over the fact that Vulcan was destroyed and wasn't "resurrected" at the end. Maybe the next movie will have the crew go back in time and fix it (?)

Clwedd said...

Hi Brian,

I agree with your comments, many of which I thought of as the movie played on the screen. I really enjoyed the movie, despite the number of times I thought "THAT is so freaking unlikely" or "but wouldn't a planet imploding that close by cause massive havoc on a neighbouring world?" (as Khan would find out in another reality) despite the presence of these issues, I would line up tomorrow if a new one came out, because of the number of things that they got right.
The existence of the mysterious red blobby stuff was a little ridiculous. If such a substance did exist, who in their right mind would put that much of it (considering how little it takes to make a black hole) on a small vessel and fly around with it?
Surprisingly, I had little trouble swallowing the story that ALL the original crew got together so quickly, maybe with the exception of Scotty, who I found to be the least like the original character.

arcticcircle said...

Very good points and I'm glad I didn't think of most of them when I was watching the movie. The only daft thing that stuck out like a sore thumb at the time was "Why would you park so close to a vessel full of that exploding red stuff when you know that a thimble full was enough to create a singularity powerful enough to suck in a planet?" Surely they had no chance of escaping a vat full of red stuff. Stupid red stuff.

Kyle Miller said...

Hi Brian,

Your comments about engineering are spot on. They're in outer space for Pete's sake. Every inch of interior space is going to be at a premium - it should be packed tighter than the engine compartment on a Japanese car. Yet they seem to have awesome space for high cathedral ceilings and catwalks, and absolutely no rational for it. Whomever was art director for this film should be fired.

Darrin Bell said...

Plenty of fair nitpicks, although the time travel issue you raised was answered in-film by the many-realities theory. Spock can't just go back in time and prevent the destruction of Vulcan. All he could do is go back in time and create an alternate reality in which Vulcan doesn't get destroyed. In the reality from which he came, Vulcan was never destroyed so there's no point in doing that. He probably wants to spend his remaining days helping to rebuild this reality's Vulcan civilization.

Of course, this has wider implications for the rest of Star Trek. This means in that TOS episode with Edith Keeler, when Bones went back in time and saved her and the Enterprise disappeared, it didn't really disappear. Our heroes instead wound up in an alternate reality. And when Kirk and Spock "fixed" McCoy's mistake, they created yet another alternate reality. When they returned, they either returned to the future of that alternate reality (meaning they never returned at all in the original time stream) or the Guardian sent them back to their original universe.

And when the whales were taken from the 1980s in Star Trek IV, that didn't save Earth in the original time stream, that created a NEW alternate reality where 23rd Century Earth doesn't get destroyed, and so on...

I avoided interviews like the plague before seeing the movie, but after I watched it, I caught up. In interviews the writers tried to explain the coincidences by bringing up the concept of destiny. Some things are just destined to happen across the different realities: the positions of the stars, the existence of the same civilizations, etc. According to them, these people are destined to come together in most realities, and even when the timestream is screwed with, reality recalibrates itself to make their convergence happen. They didn't make that explicit in the film, but I got that impression while watching it so they must've worked the notion in somehow.

And I believe Spock did step off the turbolift right onto the bridge in the first bridge scene. I don't remember a corridor leading straight to the bridge. I remember seeing Uhura run along a corridor then they cut to the bridge, but I think I assumed she hopped on the turbolift. I'm watching it again tonight so I'll pay better attention.

As for the supernova, I was assuming Spock meant it might destroy Romulus and destabilize the balance of power in the galaxy (which was precarious at the end of Deep Space Nine), much the way people talk about "destroying the earth" when the earth's going to be just fine and what they really mean is "destroying us."

And as for the PDA with Uhura: if you rewatch "The Cage" or "The Menagerie," you'll notice Spock was pretty darn emotional at that age. He smiled at flowers, he yelled constantly, etc... Trekkies have pointed out that inconsistency for generations. That's why later on, in either the films or TNG (I forget which) the writers had him or Sarek explicitly say that it took Spock quite a while to sublimate his human side. It probably didn't happen until later on in his 11 year service under Capt. Pike (which doesn't happen in this new reality, now all those service and Vulcanization will happen during Kirk's command). I think a little PDA is par for the course, since at that point in his life Spock basically IS a hormone-happy teenager.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for the contributions, everyone. It's interesting how everyone looks for different things, has different thresholds, and draws such different conclusions. Rationalizing is half the fun.

Darrin, thanks for commenting here and, as I told you before, the references and respect for "Star Trek" that you express in your comic strip "Candorville" in general. I always appreciate them.

Mike Wallster said...

I loved it. The time-travel stuff doesn't bother me too much, if I had to nit-pick something about Star Trek it would be Kirk and the Snow Beasties, I thought that was unnecessary. The audience I saw it with loved it, so what do I know? The night before seeing the movie, I read the comic book Star Trek: Countdown. The authors are the film's writers, so the comic is a prequel to the movie. I highly recommend it, it's a lot of fun and fills in some background detail on Nero and his motivation for being such a naughty boy.

Kyle Miller said...

Darin, I think you just blew my mind. Have you ever read Connie Wills? She writes some fascinating things about time travel, but in "To say nothing of the dog" she correctly points out that what we consider as our present is actually someone else's past.

But I digress. As I've noted elsewhere, I'd love to see the socio-political dealings that were left unfinished at the end of DS9 picked up in a movie some day. There's more than one way to threaten the federation and its planets.

Brian Fies said...

WARNING: TREKKIE NERD CONTENT AHEAD. Darrin, I completely follow you on the alternate reality time travel stuff, and think that within the rules of Star Trek you're probably right: there are probably timelines in which Edith Keeler died or lived, whales were or were not returned from the past, etc. What Kirk, Spock and the crew likely did in all their time travel adventures was "fix" the events of the past so that they could return to a universe virtually identical to the one they left without actually being the same world. (On the other hand, "City on the Edge of Forever" and the DS9 Gabriel Bell episodes seem more like classic pre-destination paradoxes to me: you go back in time and think you're changing things but the changes you make are exactly what has to happen to produce the future you came from.)

But, even if true, it begs the question. In previous episodes and films, Spock Prime himself thought it was worth going back in time to stop McCoy from saving Edith or to retrieve whales to save Earth. Even in terms of your theory, Spock went to the effort to create new timelines/universes in which Edith died and humpback whales lived--even if that meant in some other reality he didn't. Why he'd bother saving two whales but not billions of Vulcans is beyond me. (I realize that in terms of moviemaking, this is considered a trivial point of continuity. I don't think it is, particularly in a movie centered around Trekkian time travel. But Abrams would probably advise me to Get A Life. I'll start working on that.)

Torsten Adair said...

Biggest nitpick: why dig at sea level right next to San Francisco when Death Valley is just a few degrees away?

Smaller nitpicks: eastern Iowa is not flat. Iowa, situated between two major rivers, is very hilly. That cliff? It's a rock quarry, which do exist in that part of the state. Why Starfleet placed a major port near Riverside, I don't know.

Why didn't the robo-cop hit the antique car with an EMP blast? Or use a tractor (heh) beam? Instead, Kirk almost gets killed.

Overall, I like the story, especially how the destruction of Romulus bookends the "classic Trek" universe and begins the "new Trek" universe.